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Florida Athletics photo by Alex de la Osa / Florida junior forward Keyontae Johnson is now helping as a student coach as part of the recovery following his Dec. 12 collapse during a game at Florida State.

The Kentucky Wildcats are 1-6 in men's basketball and off to their worst start since 1911.

Kentucky was supposed to open Southeastern Conference play tonight against South Carolina in Rupp Arena, but Frank Martin's Gamecocks had to postpone the game due to positive COVID tests. The Gamecocks are just 1-2 this season, having played the fewest games of any SEC program.

This was expected to be a challenging season on the SEC hardwood amid this coronavirus pandemic, but the shocking collapse of Florida junior forward Keyontae Johnson during the Dec. 12 game at Florida State has provided a new perspective for all involved.

"As a head coach and as Keyontae's coach — I've always loved my guys," Florida's Mike White said Monday on a Zoom call to preview the start of the conference season. "You always think you really love them, but when you experience something that traumatic, it really makes you re-examine a lot of things, and perhaps, most importantly, the love and care you have for these young men as people more so than basketball players.

"It's as big of a reminder as anything else that the game of basketball is a beautiful thing, and it provides opportunities of a lifetime for thousands, if not more, young men and women around the world, but it is a game. It is still a game, and what's more important than the winning and losing are the relationships that you have with the young people you have the opportunity to mold."

The SEC's league schedule starts tonight with Texas A&M at LSU and with Ole Miss at Alabama, with Wednesday night's lineup containing the appealing showdown of No. 7 Tennessee at No. 12 Missouri.

Johnson, who led the Gators in scoring last season with 14.0 points per game and was the SEC preseason player of the year, remained in a Tallahassee hospital for two days before being transferred to Gainesville, where he remained hospitalized until being released on Dec. 22. There have been media reports linking the 6-foot-5, 229-pounder to a heart condition that may be COVID-related, but Johnson's family has asked for patience when it comes to drawing conclusions for the cause of the collapse.

White wasn't about to speculate Monday when asked whether Johnson could return by the end of the season.

"Keyontae is back with us and is doing well," White said. "He was at practice this morning and is helping us coach. He actually blew a whistle yesterday during a segment, where he was correcting guys and leading. We're extremely grateful and thankful to everyone around the country and the world who prayed for him and his family through this traumatic couple of weeks.

"His future medical condition, because of privacy laws and because of incomplete information on my end — his medical team and family are leading that front, so any decisions or announcements will come from them."

Florida wound up taking 15 days off between Johnson's collapse and Sunday's resumption of practice for Wednesday night's league opener at Vanderbilt. There has been no shortage of well-wishers throughout the conference and the country.

"I'm a huge fan of Keyontae, and my heart goes out to him and to Mike and to everyone who is a part of that basketball program and what they've been dealing with," Martin said. "We're all dealing with a difficult hand right now, and it's not easy, but going through what they've been going through — there is no chapter in Coaching 101 that prepares you for that moment."

Said Tennessee's Rick Barnes: "When I saw that happen, my only concern was for his well being. Everyone around the country went into prayer for him and his family and his doctors."

Martin's Gamecocks ended their own lengthy pause this past Saturday and underwent COVID testing Sunday. He said the plan is to play Saturday's game against visiting Florida A&M, but he has no idea how many of his players will be available.

"We were just starting to figure out who we were and some of the things we needed to do better, and then we got shut down," Martin said. "Since December 7, we've basically had one practice, and it's hard to gauge your team and improve your team with one practice in 20 days.

"This year should make everyone understand that none of us are immune from difficult times."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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